The most up-to-date definition of hypnosis is: ‘A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterised by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.‘ (Elkins, 2015).
Research has shown that hypnosis can be of benefit for individuals suffering from trauma-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hypnosis is not used in isolation to treat such conditions but in conjunction with other therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy.
Research studies have demonstrated that the use of hypnosis as part of the therapy for trauma-based conditions can be particularly effective in:
– reducing the intensity and frequency of intrusive, distressing thoughts and nightmares
– decreasing avoidance behaviours (ie avoidance of situations which remind the individual under treatment of the original trauma)
– reducing the intensity and frequency of the mental re-experiencing the trauma
– reducing anxiety, hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal that the trauma has caused
– helping the individual to psychologically INTEGRATE the memory of trauma in a way which reduces symptoms of dissociation (I have written a post on dissociation which some of you may like to look at)
– helping the individual to develop more adaptive coping strategies
On top of the above benefits, the use of hypnosis has been shown to be very likely to improve the therapeutic relationship between the individual undergoing treatment and the therapist.
However, it is not recommended that hypnosis be used to ‘recover buried memories of trauma’ as this has been shown to be unreliable and it is also likely that the use of hypnosis for this purpose can create FALSE MEMORIES in the person being treated.
Some individuals have been significantly helped by the use of hypnosis as part of their therapy for trauma-related conditions such as PTSD in as little as just a few sessions. As one would expect, however, the more complex the trauma-related condition is, the longer that effective treatment for it is likely to take.
Hypnosis And ‘Buried Memories :
A central tenet of psychodynamic theory is that some traumatic memories are so painful that they are buried (repressed) in the unconscious (automatically rather than deliberately) denying us direct access to them (though it has been theorized indirect access may be available through dreams and other phenomena).
One theory is that these buried memories need to be brought into full consciousness via the psychotherapeutic process and properly ‘worked through’ in order to alleviate the psychological symptoms associated with their hitherto repression.
It is frequently believed, including by therapists, that ‘buried traumatic memories’ can be accessed by hypnosis. But can they? What does the research tell us?
In one study, 70% of first-year psychology students agreed with the statement that hypnosis can help to access repressed memories. More worryingly, 84% of psychologists were also found to believe the same thing. It comes as little surprise, then, that many therapists use hypnosis in an attempt to help their clients recover ‘repressed traumatic memories’. Indeed, the therapy, known as ‘hypnoanalysis’, was developed on the theory that ‘repressed traumatic memories’ could be accessed by hypnosis to cure the patient of his/her psychological ailment.
Surveys of the general public indicate that many of them, too, believe in the power of hypnosis to aid memory recall.
Whilst some contemporary researchers still hold to the belief that hypnosis aids recall, the majority now believe this is NOT the case. On the contrary, hypnosis has generally been found to IMPAIR and DISTORT recall (eg. Lynnet, 2001).
Furthermore, studies reveal that hypnosis can CREATE FALSE MEMORIES (see my post on memory repression for more detail on the question of the reality of the concept of buried memories) which, due to the insidious influence of the therapist, the patient can become very confident are real.
This is of particular concern if the hypnosis has been used to try to help an eye-witness or crime victim recall ‘forgotten details’ of the crime and this evidence is then presented before a court of law. Indeed, as the problem becomes increasingly recognized, such ‘hypnotically recovered evidence’ is becoming increasingly unlikely to be admissible.
Some therapists use hypnosis to age-regress their adult clients (i.e. take them back ‘mentally’ to their childhoods) in an attempt to help them recall important events that occurred in their childhood which may be connected to their current psychological state. However, here, too, research suggests (e.g. Nash, 1987) such attempts are of no real value.
Hypnosis does not appear to be useful for retrieving ‘buried memories’ and can, in fact, be utterly counter-productive by creating FALSE or DISTORTED memories.
How Hypnosis CAN Help Those Who Have
Suffered From Childhood Trauma :
However, hypnosis can help with many psychological conditions that those who have suffered childhood trauma may suffer from and I outline examples some of these below :
If we suffered significant and protracted trauma during our childhoods, we are far more likely than those who were fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable and secure upbringing (all else being equal) to develop severe anxiety and associated conditions in adulthood.
We feel anxiety when we perceive a threat (and the threat may be real or imagined).
Our perception of being under threat causes stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, to be released into the brain.
The release of these stress hormones into the body can result in distressing physical sensations; these differ depending upon the particular individual concerned and include the following (to list just a few examples):
– stomach aches
– dry mouth
– heart palpitations
– feeling faint/dizziness
These physical symptoms of stress form part of a vicious cycle; this vicious cycle is caused by the various aspects of stress feeding off one another as I describe below:
1) Anxious thoughts lead to the production of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol
2) These stress hormones produce physical symptoms in the body which exacerbate anxious thoughts
3) These further anxious thoughts then cause yet more stress hormones to flood the brain…and, thus, the vicious cycle continues
How Do You Break This Vicious Cycle?
In order to break this vicious cycle, a component of it needs to be broken so that the elements it is made up of can no longer feed off one another. Using hypnosis for anxiety therapy can do this in different ways, for example:
– the excessive production of stress hormones flooding the brain can be halted using self-hypnosis techniques such as calming imagery/visualisation.
– anxious thoughts can be reduced under hypnosis. This can be achieved in many ways, two of which I describe below:
Example of techniques used in hypnosis to reduce anxiety :
- The ‘Compassionate Friend’ Technique.
To simplify: under hypnosis, the individual is given the post-hypnotic suggestion that when s/he has negative, anxiety-producing thoughts s/he will be able to imagine what an ideal compassionate friend would say in response to them in order to comfort and reassure, so it becomes rather like having a tiny personal counsellor taking up residence in one’s head!
2. Hypnotic distancing :
This technique can help to diminish the intensity of the impact our traumatic experiences have on us by use of a visualization technique that involves us imagining viewing these experiences through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
And, finally, many readers will already be aware that mindfulness meditation is often an extremely effective way of coping with stress and anxiety, though requires practice.
Hypnotic suggestion and hypnotic visualization techniques can also help us to deal with disturbing flashbacks connected to our traumatic experiences. For example, the therapist might induce the hypnotic state in the client and then suggest to him/her that s/he is watching his / her traumatic experiences on a CD and to then stop and eject the CD so that the screen goes blank.
Once this visualization is achieved, the next step is for him /her to visualize locking away the CD in a safe. Once this has been accomplished, the therapist suggests to the client (who is still in a state of hypnosis) that the sare will only be opened again at the next therapy session and that, in that session, the CD will only be able to play the amount of material and content that the client is able to cope with on the day.
Hypnotic visualization can also be used to decrease one’s sense of victimhood and increase one’s sense of mastery. For instance, after hypnotic induction, the hypnotherapist may suggest to the client that s/he visualizes him/herself as a strong, resilient person who refuses to allow others to spoil his / her life anymore.’
We have seen from many other articles that I have published on this site that those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma are at increased risk of developing depression (as well as many other psychiatric conditions) in adulthood than those who had relatively happy and stable childhoods (all else being equal).
One method that can help to reduce feelings of depression, especially when used in conjunction with other therapies such as pharmacology and psychotherapy, is self-hypnosis.
One of the main prevailing theories of the cause of depression is that it arises due to imbalances in certain brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters), in particular serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
What Is The Function Of These Brain Chemicals?
– Serotonin is thought to be involved with appetite, digestion, social behaviour, sexual desire, sexual function, sleep, memory and mood.
– Norepinephrine is thought to be involved with the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.
– Dopamine is thought to play a very important role in internal reward-motivated behaviour (e.g. the pleasurable feelings generated by sex or a large gambling win).
In order to attempt to correct this chemical imbalance, and thus alleviate depressive symptoms, medications are frequently prescribed. Unfortunately, however, not everyone finds them effective.
Hypnosis For Depression :
Another way to alter the brain’s chemical balance in those suffering from depression, research has shown, is by self-suggestion, as used in self-hypnosis, and by altering a person’s level of expectancy regarding their recovery (which plays a major role, of course, in the placebo effect); both of these phenomena have their foundations in the well-known phenomenon of the mind-body connection.
Indeed, self-hypnosis for depression (utilizing self-suggestion) combined with cognitive-behavioural therapy and/or drug therapy may be a particularly effective way of alleviating depressive symptoms.
A meta-analysis of hypnosis for the treatment of depression (Shih et al.) found that it significantly reduced depressive symptoms and concluded that it was ‘ a viable non-pharmacological intervention for depression.‘
Commonly, too, depression co-exists alongside anxiety, and numerous studies (e.g. see Hammond) suggest hypnosis and self-hypnosis are often particularly effective for treating anxiety-related conditions such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
Depression can also be exacerbated by loneliness or due to poor relationships with significant others (an illustrative example of this is that, on average, married people are significantly less likely (some research suggests up to 70% less likely) to suffer from depression compared with their non-married counterparts; here, again, self-hypnosis can be of use in order to assist us to improve our interpersonal relationships by, for example, helping to repair our disrupted unconscious processes, allowing us to be more able to give and receive love/affection, making us less withdrawn, and reducing tendencies to judge ourselves and others in an overly negative manner.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) :
According to the psychologist, Spiegel, self-hypnosis can be a useful tool to help individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) overcome problems associated with the troubling symptom of disturbing, intrusive memories of the original trauma.
Spiegel states that self-hypnosis may be particularly useful because certain qualities of the hypnotic experience have much in common with qualities of the experience of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), examples of which include :
– a feeling of reliving the traumatic event
– feelings of dissociation (detachment from reality)
– hypersensitivity to stimuli
– a disconnection between cognitive and emotional experience
Spiegel argues that this similarity between hypnotic phenomena and the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) make sufferers of this most serious and disturbing disorder more hypnotizable than the average member of any given randomly selected population.
It follows from this that those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be particularly likely to be helped by the utilization of hypnotic techniques and procedures, particularly ‘coupling access to dissociative traumatic memories with positive restructuring of those memories’ (Spiegel et al., 1990). By this statement, Spiegel is suggesting that hypnosis could help bring traumatic memories more fully into conscious awareness and alter the way in which they are stored in memory by associating / pairing / linking them with feelings of safety (such as the feeling of being safe and protected in the therapist’s consulting room) rather than, as had previously been the case, high levels of distress.
In this way, Spiegel suggests, when these previously disturbing memories are recalled in the future because they are now associated/paired/linked with feelings of safety, they cease to induce distress.
In effect, then, the traumatic memories have become positively recontextualized and deprived of their previous power to induce feelings of fear, anxiety and terror.
WHY PTSD SUFFERERS MAY BE MORE HYPNOTIZABLE THAN THE AVERAGE PERSON :
Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder display an array of distressing symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, hypervigilance and hypersensitivity to stress.
Fortunately, however, research has found that those who suffer from PTSD tend to be more hypnotizable than the average person (this is thought to be because they can vividly imagine things which is an important component that helps to make an individual able to respond to hypnotherapy positively.
Many PTSD sufferers, therefore, can potentially be helped by practising self-hypnosis.
What Is The Evidence That Hypnotherapy Can Effectively Reduce Symptoms Of PTSD?
There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that those with PTSD can be helped by taking advantage of hypnotherapy. I briefly examine some of this evidence below:
1) Bryant et al. carried out a research study that showed the more vividly PTSD sufferers experienced flashbacks and nightmares, the more hypnotizable they tended to be.
2) Brom et al. ran an experiment in which PTSD sufferers were split into three groups :
Group 1 received psychodynamic psychotherapy
Group 2 received were treated using systematic desensitization techniques
Group 3 received hypnotherapy
Whilst all three groups responded equally well, group 3, comprising individuals who underwent hypnotherapy, required the fewest treatment sessions.
Forbes et al. found hypnotherapy to be an effective means of reducing nightmares and flashbacks in PTSD sufferers.
Krakow et al. carried out research showing that children who had experienced early life trauma were able to use imagery under hypnosis which reduced their nightmares and intrusive thoughts, as well as reducing their levels of emotional arousal and improving their quality of sleep.
Furthermore, there is good evidence that hypnotherapy can substantially help those suffering from mental health issues linked to PTSD such as depression and anxiety.
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.